Hearing the Voice: A Riff on Sara and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael

Leo Baeck Centre

Rosh Hashana morning, 5784/ 2023


Rabbi Fred Morgan


I want to thank all the folk at Leo Baeck Centre for giving Sue and me the opportunity to be with over the Yamim Nora’im this year.  I’d also like to thank you for giving me the chance to speak about one of my favourite stories from Torah, the story that we heard from Torah this morning.

It was a stroke of genius on the part of the ancient rabbis to assign Genesis 21, the story of Sara and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael, as the reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana.  Many progressive shuls, especially if don’t observe 2nd day Rosh Hashana, read the Akedat Yitzchak, Binding of Isaac, on the first day.  Our shuls here in Melbourne have often done this.  But the story of Hagar and Sara and their sons is chosen traditionally for a reason.  It perfectly captures the flow of the year as a kind of microcosm of a human life, a portrait of human experience; and it does this, in classic Torah style, by telling a story, the story of one family, the family of Abraham.  If we look carefully, we’ll be able to see our own lives reflected in their story.

The story in chapter 21 begins with the birth of Isaac, the long-hoped for son of Abraham and Sara.  As is the case with any birth, but also with the start of a new year, this is a moment of hope, of anticipation and promise.  What could be more appropriate for Rosh Hashana – a birthday, the birthday of the world!  The birth of Isaac is mirrored in the haftarah by the birth of the great judge and prophet Samuel at a later stage in Israel’s history.  Two birthdays!  Wonderful, mazal tov!  How appropriate, also, that Isaac is named Yitzchak, Let him laugh.  It’s a simcha!  The circumcision, the weaning with its celebratory feast – all follows in its proper order.  The year is set to be a good one.

But then contention enters the picture.  As we say, somewhat euphemistically, Life happens.  Sara sees Hagar’s son Yishmael “laughing”.  Who are these characters?  Hagar is Sara’s servant and Abraham’s concubine, and Yishmael is Sara’s son Isaac’s potential rival.  We are told that Hagar is an Egyptian.  To a Torah-reading Jew, “Egypt” can conjure only one thing: Egyptian bondage and the Exodus from Egypt.  The Egyptian represents the oppressor.  The oppressor is the ultimate stranger, the outsider, the one to be feared.  Even Hagar’s name points in this direction.  Alter the vowels a little and we get Ha-ger, the Stranger.  Hagar is the ultimate outsider, the outlier, the one on the periphery.  As a servant she has no power, but nonetheless she is threatening because she is strange, different, not one of us.  Her son Yishmael is “the one whom God will hear”.  God will hear his voice (kol).  To think that God might favour the stranger, might harken to the voice of the alien Other, is a terrifying prospect.  It suggests that we are not favoured or at least that God doesn’t take sides, therefore that God is not on our side – or not only on our side.  Many people find this thought terrifying and disorientating.  “I’m not the favourite” – now there’s a frightening thought in the mind of any child.  This is what Hagar and Yishmael represent to Sara: the alien, one whose voice davka God should not listen to!

This is the Yishmael who laughs.  It is the laughter of the stranger whom we fear and distrust.  Are they laughing at us?  Sara doesn’t know this laughter.  To her ears, this cannot be the joyful and triumphant laughter that gave Isaac his name.  What kind of laughter is this?  Sardonic, mocking, illicit, maybe crude or licentious (as some midrashim suggest)?  Whatever it is, Sara doesn’t like it.  She calls on Abraham to throw Hagar and Yishmael out of the tent; in those days, in that place, that meant almost certain death.  Abraham doesn’t like this, but God tells him to listen to Sara’s voice (kol).  Yishmael has a destiny, too; this is part of the divine plan.

So Abraham, always the man of action, wakes up early, he gives Hagar and Yishmael one bag of water and sends them off into the wilderness of Be’er Sheva.  When the water runs out Hagar is despondent; she “raises her voice (kol) and cries”.  This is the cry of all who despair, all who are traumatised by life, who face life without hope.  Later in Torah, it will be the cry of our people in Egypt, when they fall into the depths of despair at their servitude.  In our own day it was the cry of our people out of the blackness of Auschwitz.  The sound of this cry of despair is… Silence.  When our people emerged from the kingdom of the night that was the Shoah, they were almost universally unable to speak.  A Sydney linguist named Ruth Wajnryb wrote a whole book about this muteness, which she had experienced from her survivor-parents.  She called it The Silence.  I recommend it to you.  The silence was broken only in the 1960s, with the trial of the arch-murderer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.  That was when survivors of trauma were first invited to tell their stories publicly.  After that, the unlikely prophet Stephen Spielberg further shattered the silence with his film Shindler’s List, and the archival foundation that followed.  In Melbourne the Lamm Library gave Julie Meadows the brief to capture as many survivor testimonies in writing as she could, and at the Holocaust Museum Phillip Maisel z”l used video technology to record 1000 stories.  This was for one purpose: so that we and later generations can listen to the voice of the survivors.

If anyone said to them, or to us, “It’s enough already.  It’s time to move on.  Why are you bothering with these stories.  They happened to someone else, at another time, in another place.  They are of no interest to us, now and here.  Get over it!”, we would be shocked, appalled, offended.  We are offended whenever, in our opinion, someone misuses the Holocaust, for example, to make a political point or to describe current events.  Laws are passed to protect us in our trauma.  We Jews know that massive genocidal trauma of this kind doesn’t pass in a year or a few years or even decades.  It lasts for generations.

A few months ago I was in Armenia, and I can testify that the memory of the trauma inflicted on the Armenians by the Turks will last for generations.  It is made worse by the fact that it still goes unacknowledged by the descendants of the perpetrators.  In effect, they refuse to hear the stories of the descendants of their victims; they adamantly will not listen to their voice.

I recently read about how the government of Canada has made sincere efforts to hear their native peoples, who were dispossessed and mistreated over many years.  Indigenous children were taken from their homes and incarcerated (there’s no other word for it) in “boarding schools”, ostensibly to be raised as Anglicised or Europeanised children, but in reality they were used as menial labour, treated like chattel, poorly educated, beaten, sometimes murdered.

This should ring bells with us here in Australia.  Kevin Rudd, when PM, offered an apology to those among the “Stolen Generation.”  Survivors and their children applauded from the balcony of Parliament.  But it’s what came before, acts of repentance made or not made, and what follows the apology, pledges of acknowledgement and restitution performed or ignored, that matter.  To overcome the trauma of 235 years of geographic dispersal, erasing of culture, loss of language and of lifestyle – being reduced to silence – requires more than “Gee, we’re sorry”, or worse, “Get over it.  It’s time you became like us.”  It requires that the dominant actor (and, as the Shoah has taught us, that includes the quiet bystander) deliberately and honestly “hears the voice” of the Aboriginal people telling their story in the way they wish to tell it.  No excuses, no “it’s all past, ancient history,” no “this divides us as a nation” (because the trauma means we’re already divided as a nation).  This is what is captured so perfectly by “the Voice”, the Aboriginal Voice.

In a few weeks there will be a referendum on “the Voice”.  Whatever might happen politically (and on that I make no comment or judgment), spiritually the act of “listening to the voice” of the stranger, the person on the periphery, the one who has been silenced for decades, is essential to our well-being; indeed, it is essential to our survival as human beings who, as the Psalmist says, are “a little lower than the angels”.  The Uluru Statement of the Heart captures that Voice, even, for example, as the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel captures the Voice of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.  Because these are humanly conceived and composed statements, there will be those who agree with them and those who disagree.  But that each of them expresses an authentic and revelatory voice of the people who drafted it and stand by it cannot be doubted.

How does this reflect on our spiritual health?  Because by listening to the voice of the other who has been traumatised, we imitate God; we do what God would have us do.  This is God’s role, vis-a-vis humanity: God listens to our voice.  In the story of Hagar and Yishmael that we are reading this morning, we are told that “God heard the lad’s voice (kol)”.  (Recall the meaning of Ishmael’s name: the one whom God will hear).  Then an angel reassures Hagar, “God has heard the lad’s voice (kol) ‘where he is’”.

That phrase, “where he is (ba’asher hu sham)”, strikes the ear oddly both in Hebrew and in English.  We ask, what does it mean to hear the voice of another “where he is”?  As I understand it, to hear his voice “where he is” would mean to hear him exactly where he stands: that is, as he really, truly is; to hear his story, to listen to him with sincerity and respect; not to force him to move into our space, to use our words or to fit into our world-view, but to try with all our might to hear him on his terms.  It is to perform what Jewish mysticism calls tzimtzum, or withdrawal of our ego: to stand back and let him speak as he will.  That is what it means to have a voice.

Each of us standing here in this synagogue today, or online, wants – needs – others to hear our voice, to hear us “where we stand”.  Our sense of well-being and wholeness over the year to come depends on this.  So does the well-being and wholeness of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.  Just as we demand that our voice be heard, so we should listen to the voice of others and not force our will, our fear of the stranger or our understanding of the world on them.

We are not told of the words that may have passed between God’s messenger and Ishmael.  But we know that, having been heard, Yishmael can now continue to grow and to fulfil his destiny as the ancestor of a great people.  The narrative ends on a note of hope: a well of water appears, the boy drinks; he learns a trade – archery, he marries, has children and lives out his days.  He has been heard “where he is”.  Life goes on.

So, with us: may life go on for us for another year, and may this year resonate with our voice and with the voice of all others who share this glorious land with us.

Ken y’hi ratzon

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